OPINION | Curtis Varnell: ‘True Grit’ lovers can take real journey to book’s locations

John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film version of “True Grit.”

(Courtesy Photo/Curtis Varnell)
John Wayne played Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film version of “True Grit.” (Courtesy Photo/Curtis Varnell)

Always a John Wayne fan, I became a bigger one after watching "True Grit" and associating it with the region in which I was raised.

Set in the 1880s, Charles Portis' 1968 novel describes 14-year-old Mattie Ross' effort to avenge the death of her father. Mattie leaves her home near Dardanelle, Ark., and travels to Fort Smith searching for a person that would exact retribution on the "worthless scoundrel" Thomas Chaney, who had robbed and killed her father on the streets of Fort Smith.

References to Fort Smith "hanging judge" Isaac Parker and to his many marshals that patrolled the lawless Indian Territory abound in the story. Eventually, Ross hires the drunken, trigger-happy Rooster Cogburn to assist her in her quest. No doubt, she would have been better served to have hired the historical Bass Reeves as her guide. Reeves, a former slave, was the first black deputy to serve west of the Mississippi River and served for 32 years as a federal peace officer. During that time, he recorded more than 3,000 arrests and killed 14 outlaws while defending his life. It was said that when Reeves was on your trail, you might as well surrender -- because he never gave up.

Regardless, Mattie, when given her choice of choosing a marshal, passed up those that were reputable and chose Rooster Cogburn, portrayed in the movie by John Wayne. Cogburn, the young Mattie, and eventually Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Glen Campbell) spend the rest of the movie chasing outlaws through the Poteau Mountains of Oklahoma. The last scenes of the movie show Mattie, now elderly and back in Dardanelle, visiting the graveside of Cogburn, who had died while participating in a wild west show in Jonesboro, Ark. One of the most popular westerns of all time, "True Grit" was again filmed and released in 2010, both times to nationwide acclaim.

The book and movies were so popular, and perhaps so believable, that many people began stopping by some of the locations cited in them. Already a city with a past rooted in early exploration, Indian lands, and Civil War battles, Dardanelle, as central to the plot of the story, became identified somewhat with the story and, building on its fame, began to promote visitation in the area. "True Grit" just adds appeal to telling the story of our culture. Although fictional, Mattie exhibits some of the most admired traits of the pioneer. Some of the famed quotes from the film share the values and common sense of the people of Arkansas. In one scene, Mattie quotes, "If you want anything done right, you will have to see to yourself every time." In another instance, "What have you done if you have bested a fool?" Each of the main characters in the book are tested to see if they have "True Grit," which is defined as the stubborn refusal to quit until a job is done.

The people of the area have exhibited true grit for over 100 years, and now Dardanelle serves as the eastern anchor to the "True Grit Trail," which follows Mattie's journey to Fort Smith. Visit the Arkansas River Valley Library in Dardanelle and explore the exhibit about "True Grit" including its historical and fictional parts. With more exhibits to follow, Dardanelle is a great place to begin the journey on the trail. Following Mattie's journey, pass through Paris and visit the Eiffel Tower or the 1898 steam locomotive, Charleston and its historical place in school integration and end at the western terminus in Fort Smith by visiting the new U.S. Marshals Museum, Judge Parker's courtroom and National Park, and stop by the beautiful tribute to Bass Reeves. All are a part of the new "True Grit Trail."

  photo  "True Grit," Charles Portis second novel, was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and appeared on the New York Times best-seller list for 22 weeks in 1968. (Courtesy Image/Curtis Varnell)

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